Sometimes, employers make comments to employees without realizing the impact of their statements. Misconstrued statements may lower employee morale, or worse, result in breach of contract, discrimination or other employee complaints.
Here are some statements to avoid in the workplace:
Avoid: “Don’t worry—you will always have a job with us.”
Reason: If you promise an employee permanent employment, you may jeopardize their at-will employment status. “At-will” means you can terminate an employee for any reason, at any time, as long as the reason is a lawful one. To maintain at-will status, avoid statements that could be interpreted as a promise of future employment. Business conditions may change or the employee’s performance may slip, and you will want flexibility to make employment decisions that are in the company’s best interest.
Note: There are exceptions to at-will employment created by contract, statute, the courts, or public policy. In addition, at-will employment is recognized in all states but Montana.
Avoid: “Money is tight this year so there will be no raises, but we will make it up to you next year.”
Reason: While you may have good intentions, an employee may interpret this statement as a promise of continued employment. Additionally, if there isn’t money in the budget, or the employee’s performance doesn’t warrant a raise, don’t make a promise that you may be unable to keep.
Avoid: “You look great today.”
Reason: Comments about an employee’s appearance are generally inappropriate, and may be construed as harassment or bullying. Unless your remark is related to a dress code violation, conversations should focus on an employee’s performance, rather than how they look.
Avoid: (Upon receiving a harassment complaint) “They are just having fun—grow a thicker skin.”
Reason: Federal, state, and local laws prohibit harassment in the workplace, and employers have a responsibility to take steps to prevent and correct unlawful harassment. Take all harassment complaints seriously and investigate each complaint promptly. If an investigation reveals that a violation occurred, take immediate and appropriate corrective action to remedy the situation.
Avoid: “You wouldn’t be interested in that promotion—it requires a lot of travel and you have a family.”
Reason: Never make assumptions based on an employee’s family status or caregiving responsibilities. Employment decisions based on an employee’s caregiving responsibilities may implicate nondiscrimination laws. Focus solely on job-related factors when making such decisions.
Avoid: “We need to hire someone young to really understand this new technology.” “We need younger employees to compete.”
Reason: Excluding older workers from certain jobs because of their age could violate nondiscrimination laws. Identify the skills, knowledge, and experience needed for the job and select candidates based on those criteria, not age or another protected characteristic.
Avoid: “Are you pregnant?”
Reason: Even if an employee’s pregnancy seems obvious to you, avoid asking the employee whether she is pregnant. Generally, an employee is under no obligation to inform her employer that she is pregnant unless she is seeking pregnancy-related leave or an accommodation.
Avoid: “You are pregnant? Great, we’ll transfer you to a less stressful position and reduce your hours, so you can focus on your baby.”
Reason: It’s generally not a best practice to make employment decisions based on pregnancy. As long as the employee can perform the essential functions of the job, she has the right to continue working in her current position. Even if the employer has a concern for the health of the pregnant employee or her fetus, the concern will rarely justify sex-specific job restrictions.
Leave of Absence:
Avoid: “All this leave you are requesting eventually will have an impact on your job.”
Reason: Many federal, state, and local laws give employees the right to job-protected leave and prohibit retaliation against employees who exercise their rights to take leave. Comments like the one above could be interpreted as an attempt to interfere with the employee’s right to take leave.
Avoid: “I don’t think men should take parental leave. Can’t your wife take leave to be with the baby?”
Reason: A number of state and local family and medical leave laws, as well as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, give both the father and mother the right to leave to bond with a newborn or to care for a child with a serious health condition. Don’t deny an employee leave because of his or her gender.
Avoid: “Your performance was perfect, so we don’t need to do a performance review.” “We are too busy to conduct performance reviews this year.”
Reason: All employees—from the top performer on down—should receive regular performance reviews. They are important not only for assessing past performance and giving praise when due, but also for establishing goals and communicating performance expectations for the next review period. In addition, they provide documentation to support future employment decisions.
Avoid: “Tell the client I am out of the office—I don’t feel like dealing with him.” “It is OK to break that rule because I am the boss and I am telling you it’s OK.”
Reason: Employees tend to follow the example set by their leaders. If a supervisor ignores rules or is dishonest, employees might follow suit. Establish an ethical business culture in which everyone from the chief executive officer to the entry-level employee respects and follows the rules.
No matter how well-intentioned, certain statements made to employees could be misconstrued, creating problems you never intended. When communicating with employees, choose your words carefully, and train your supervisors to avoid statements that could be misinterpreted.